by Scott Zarcinas MD
In this session – 1.5 Stress Defined (Part 2) – we will continue the definition of stress that was started in 1:5 Stress Defined (Part 1).
In Part 2, we will now discuss Unworthiness and Unease in regards to the nature of stress.
Our physical attributes help define who we are. Am I tall, short, overweight, fit, young, middle-aged? Am I male or female? Do I have red, blonde or dark hair, or am I balding? Am I physically attractive or unattractive? Am I African, Asian, or European?
In themselves, these qualities are just markers or physical definitions of who we are. They are neither good nor bad. They simply help define which historical group we have in common with others of similar physical appearance.
Problems arise, however, when these qualities are used against us, when someone else, or some institution, exerts power over us for their own benefit simply because of the way we look.
When we are made to feel as though we don’t belong because of our physical attributes, when we are rejected or bullied simply for being who we are, when we are considered unacceptable because of our sex, age, race, and even physical abilities (or disabilities), we are made to suffer a state of unworthiness, which is a stress.
This is discrimination – sexism, ageism, racism – and it can lead to the sense of psychological or emotional unworthiness – shame and humiliation.
Shame and humiliation are what we commonly feel when we are discriminated against. Shame and humiliation can come from others or it can come from within. When we don’t live up to others’ expectations, or even our own expectations of ourselves, we feel small, weak and impotent. We feel belittled and undeserved. We have become unacceptable to others or ourselves.
Being outcast from a group of friends, a work or sports team, or even family, is an affront to our sense of self, to the sense of who we think we are. The rejection is a direct threat to our ego, which, like any perceived threat, reacts with the usual stress-response of “fight or flight”.
An elderly person may react to age discrimination in the workplace by taking the fight to the courts. They may seek compensation for being made redundant on the basis of their age.
Another person of similar circumstances may react differently, seeking to shelter themselves from future shame and humiliation by taking early retirement.
Neither response is right or wrong. The issue is stress, and both situations involve large quantities of it – unworthiness.
We must be careful, however, that our “fight” response doesn’t become too aggressive and dysfunctional, or that our cause doesn’t consume our sense of who we are, our identity, and we fall into the trap of righteous martyrdom. The trap, of course, is becoming the very thing that we are fighting against.
So too we must be careful of the other extreme, reclusiveness. As humans, we need to belong. We need to feel part of a group. We need to feel accepted. Wallowing in shame and humiliation, consumed by self-pity, secluding ourselves and avoiding all contact with the outside world, only adds to the stress we experience because it maintains and consolidates the state of unworthiness we feel.
However, simply being alert to the early signs of shame and humiliation, and instigating appropriate rational measures against discrimination, can go a long way to help reduce our present and future levels of unworthiness-stress and achieve a more harmonious balance in our life.
Tension and restlessness are examples of physical unease. When tension rises through our body, when restlessness is coursing through our veins and we feel “on edge”, we are in fact feeling the effects of physical stress.
Tension classically results from the “fight or flight” response. When we ready ourselves to fight or flee a threatening situation, adrenaline floods our body. The muscles tense, the mind becomes fixated, our senses become alert, and our reflexes are sharpened, all in preparation to react as quickly as possible to the needs of the situation.
When reacting to an immediate threat, tension is a normal and healthy stress-response. Unfortunately, tension tends to linger and hang around much longer than the initial situation required.
As discussed earlier, chronic tension, or tension that is constantly present for long periods of time, even decades, is not healthy. It causes chronic disease and premature aging.
Tension becomes chronic due to two main reasons:
- The initial stressor of the “fight or flight” reaction is replayed over and over again in the mind
- The initial stressor is still perceived to be present
Chronic tension is therefore highly connected to the mind: the physical unease is fed and sustained by psychological unease.
This is because the body doesn’t discern between an actual or a perceived threat; that is, a threat created by the mind. The body reacts with a stress-response in the same manner to a physical threat as it does to a mind-created threat, such as those evoked by memory, imagination, delusion, association, and suggestion.
Let’s now discuss this further.
The stressor, threat or trauma that caused our initial stress-response more often than not has a fairly limited lifespan.
Although some stresors are extremely violent and may cause physical injury and debilitation – assault, rape, natural disasters, accidents, acts of terrorism, war, torture – the actual timeframe of the violence is on average measured in minutes, hours and days. Only very rarely is it measured in months or years.
Yet victims of violence can relive the terrifying moments over and over again in their minds, even years after the event has taken place.
Returning veterans of war are the classical victims of what was once known as “shell shock”. The modern term for it is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and not only soldiers suffer from it. Any victim of a traumatic event, especially if it is overwhelming, unexpected and uncontrollable, can exhibit symptoms of PTSD, which tend to fall into 3 categories:
- Intrusive memories
- Deliberate avoidance of places, people, or dates that trigger memories/thoughts of the event
- Lack of interest in activities, others and events
- Detached feelings or numbness
- Outbursts of anger/rage
- Poor concentration
- Guilt, blame, mistrust
- Edginess, heightened alertness
Other common symptoms of PTSD include substance abuse, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, and unexplained physical aches and pains.
(Note: If you think you or somebody you know is suffering from PTSD, please seek medical advice. PTSD is a condition that rarely resolves by itself and usually gets worse. For more information, contact your local doctor or health clinic.)
PTSD is an extreme example of psychological unease brought on by reliving the traumatic event over and over again. Thankfully, most people won’t experience PTSD in their lifetime. More commonly, however, we will experience much milder versions of the affliction.
Here is an example of reliving a stressful moment:
The Near-Miss Scenario:
Driving down the road to work, somebody cuts us off, causing us to slam the brakes. Our heart beats faster, our palms become sweaty, our muscles tense, and we may even become annoyed at the other driver. Aggrieved, it takes several minutes to calm down and push aside the near-miss, even though the other vehicle is now well out of sight.
Upon arrival at our destination, we relate the incident to our colleagues. We feel our heart beating faster again, our palms getting sweaty, our muscles tensing, and our anger flaring. Again it takes some minutes to forget about it until we get about our daily routine.
Later, over lunch, we start chatting to a friend and the incident is brought up again. Our heart beats faster, our palms sweat, our muscles tense, and our anger flares at the memory. Not until we finished eating do we feel calm again.
Driving home after work, we encounter a similar vehicle to the one that cut us off this morning. Even though that car is adhering to the road rules and driving with care, our heart beats faster, our palms sweat, our muscles tense, and we feel our anger swell. Only when we pull into the driveway does the memory fade and the tension leave our body.
But then our partner returns home and asks us how our day went. We waste no time in blurting out the whole story again. Our heart beats faster, our palms sweat, our muscles tense, and we feel we need an immediate antidote to calm our anger, like a bottle of wine.
Is this a familiar story? It highlights the manner in which a minor incident is turned into a major one through memory, association, suggestion, and righteous thinking. Our normal and proper “good” stress-response in avoiding the accident earlier in the day has been transformed into “bad” dysfunctional stress that has lasted throughout the day.
But what’s the point? Why do we do this to ourselves?
Reliving past grievances, whether we have been victims of bad driving, or wronged by a work colleague, or harmed by somebody we love, only serves to aggravate the stress and tension that was caused initially.
The initial stressful event has long passed. Why, for the sake of feeling justified and in the right, do we hang on to the memory and thereby cause the release of unnecessary, age-inducing, stress hormones into our body?
This is a topic that requires far greater discussion. In the next chapter, we will delve more deeply into the human propensity to hang on to stress far longer than is necessary.
More importantly, in Section 3, we will also discuss what we can do about it, namely how we can begin to let go of the stress that we seem unable to release – The Process of Letting Go.
END OF PART 2 – STRESS DEFINED
NEXT SESSION: How To De-Stress & Prosper – 1:6 Stress Defined (Part 3)
Don’t want to wait for the next session? The Empowered Living iCourse How To De-Stress & Prosper is available as a Companion Guide and ebook.
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